Over the years, in my clinical practice, I’ve noticed that when I ask patients if they have a good working definition of emotional safety, it is often hard for them to generate a response. However, when I ask patients if they can describe what the opposite of emotional safety in a close relationship might look like, the responses flow freely. Below are some of the most common responses to the question about what a lack of emotional safety looks like:
When you feel like your partner doesn’t respect or like you very much.
When you feel like your partner will assume the worst about you.
When you feel like your partner is looking for ways that you will screw up or let them down.
When your partner is rude, hostile, or detached (in the latter case, signaling possible rejection).
Because I mostly work with a military population these days, I have worked to find language that fits with the military culture. In terms of emotional safely, the related concept that is the closest fit is the idea of “having your partner’s back.”
In this fourth of four blogs about the two levels of relationships, the topic will be how an understanding of the two levels of relationships allows you to have your partner’s back. To very briefly review the driving concept in this mini-series, I’ve been arguing that relationships occur on two levels. The level of G represents the global level of perception (whether or not your partner views you as a good person overall, despite your flaws), and the level of s refers to a person’s array of specific behavioral traits (and quirks).
There are four major ways to “have your partner’s back.” First, you can commit to refraining from making statements that condemn your partner's character or threaten the very foundations of your commitment. Some examples…
I don’t know why we’re even married some days.
I don’t know if I am still in love with you.
You’re such a loser/idiot/bimbo, etc...
You don’t really love me.
If you don’t start _________, I’m done with you.
When you make statements like these, you can set off a primitive panic at the level of G, and in doing so, you are essentially defecting from the stance of having your partner's back. If you want to get your relationship on better footing, the first step is to stop the bleeding by taking statements like these out of your options for responding. If you are committed to the relationship, then making empty threats about leaving does nothing but leave you with an insecure, hurting partner.
A second way to have your partner’s back is to become a student of their emotional reactions. This is not to say that you need to read his or her mind, but rather that it’s helpful if you can be generally aware of and responsive to your partner’s emotional state. It is possible to unintentionally make your partner feel insecure at times. When this happens, having your partner’s back means being attentive, responsive and willing to quickly address the primitive panic you may have unintentionally triggered in your partner (for example, by asking things like “Did your mood just shift?” “Did I do something that was hurtful to you just now?”).
Although it is especially important during conflict situations, reinforcing that G has reached a positive set point is third way to have your partner’s back. Such reinforcement involves frequently letting your partner know that you love them, showing them with your behavior that you respect them, and holding their worth high when you speak of them to other people. (The opposite of doing this would be to post news of your partner’s flaws and failings to your audience of Facebook friends and acquaintances, a destructive behavior I’m seeing more and more these days).
Finally, a fourth way to protect your relationship at the level of G is to make healthy attributions on an ongoing basis. By healthy attribution, I mean an interpretation of an experience, thought, person, or feeling that is balanced and reasonable. Attributions are critical to the success of relationships in later stages of love.
Specifically, having your partner’s back means expecting the relationship to change as you progress from the cocaine-rush phase into the testing phase and setting your expectations of your partner more realistically. Ultimately, although no romantic relationship can sustain the endless continuation of unfounded idealization, those in successful relationships do carry over into the post-cocaine-rush phase a tendency to slightly idealize each other in a habitually adaptive manner.
Most of us generally extend this slight idealization to ourselves anyway, so why not fold in the love of our lives as well? Since our intimate relationships have a huge impact on the quality of our lives, then surely, to do so would be self-serving, in the best possible sense of the concept.